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Gardeners and Farmers are Flocking to New Approach: Raising Fish and Plants Together

Sep 09, 2014

View Publication  |  Research Brief

Looking to expand your garden? You may want to consider raising fish. According to the first large-scale survey of aquaponics led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), more gardeners and farmers are turning to aquaponics as a popular way to raise fish and plants together.

Aquaponics is the combination of fish farming, also known as aquaculture, and hydroponics, a type of gardening in which plants are grown in water instead of soil. In an aquaponics system, water cycles between the fish tank and the plant beds. Bacteria break down fish waste into nutrients, which are then filtered out by the plants before the water flows back into the fish tanks. Aquaponics is potentially more sustainable than conventional fish farming as it continuously recycles water and discharges less wastewater, which reduces impacts on the environment.

“We had a sense that this was a growing field but nobody knew for sure,” David Love, PhD, lead author of the survey and an assistant scientist with the CLF and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Most respondents were new to aquaponics; roughly 9 in 10 respondents had five years or less of aquaponics experience. There were a handful of individuals out there with 20+ years of experience, and we need them to share their collective knowledge with the rest of the aquaponics community.”

Respondents typically raised tilapia or ornamental fish and a variety of leafy green vegetables, herbs, and fruiting crops. The median aquaponics system held 500 gallons of water and was located in a 160 square foot space, or about the size of a garage. Respondents practice aquaponics outdoors, in greenhouses or hoop houses, inside buildings, and occasionally on rooftops. 

“Our survey found that people were most often motivated to start aquaponics by a desire to grow food sustainably, for personal health reasons or for educational purposes,” said Jillian Fry, PhD, an author of the survey and director of the Public Health and Sustainable Aquaculture project at CLF. “While the vast majority of respondents indicated that they started aquaponics as a hobby, roughly half also used aquaponics as an educational tool and about a quarter grew aquaponics for commercial purposes.” 

The online survey, which was open from June to October of last year, collected information on production methods, knowledge, attitudes, motivation and demographics of aquaponics practitioners. The authors distributed the survey with the help of eighteen organizations, relying on emails, online newsletters, social media and word of mouth referrals to recruit respondents. The survey was distributed internationally, but most (80 percent) of the respondents were from the United States. The researchers plan to compare their survey results with the US Department of Agriculture Census of Aquaculture results that will be released this fall. 

“The survey shows a growing movement among fish farmers and gardeners to raise food in more ecologically sound ways. These survey data can inform future research on best practices, as well as policy and advocacy efforts around aquaponics,” notes Love. 

An International Survey of Aquaponics Practitioners,” was written by David C. Love, Jillian P. Fry, Laura Genello, Elizabeth S. Hill, J. Adam Frederick, Ximin Li and Ken Semmens.

The research was supported by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future with funding from the Grace Communications Foundation.

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future media contact: Natalie Wood-Wright at 443-287-2771 or

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health media contact: Stephanie Desmon at 410-955-7619 or